Thursday, 18 November 2010
ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE by Mark Robinson
The average response time was thirty minutes. Charlotte watched Roger wipe the rain from his face and hit redial, fogging up the interior with his breath as a sheet metal storm continued overhead. After a few moments he threw the phone down, the speaker phone bleating out a no signal tone.
Her insides plummeted to the passenger-side foot-well; it wasn’t how she had planned her husband’s death, lying in the back seat of this very car sweaty and satisfied with James.
‘Try them again.’ If he didn’t get through how would they explain James’ sudden arrival? What were the chances that a recovery vehicle just happened to be in the area on a night like this?
‘I’ve tried them twice already,’ picking the phone up and wiping water from the screen.
And it was exactly this kind of response that had forced her to find infidelity in the decisive arms of another. ‘Let me try,’ snatching the phone from her husband’s hand, hitting redial and getting another earful of beeps; no signal.
Roger turned his attention to the evening rain pelting off the earth. ‘Any luck?’
If she wasn’t mistaken, there was a glimmer in his eyes. Charlotte threw the phone back at him. ‘Now what?’ She had to get to James somehow; she took out her own phone, raising it up toward the noisy ceiling. Moving around in her seat in vain and finding no signal with which to call or text. Where they had pulled over, a little way off the main road, no other traffic was likely to pass them – it was the perfect place for a murder.
Condensation fogged at the edges of the windscreen, misting up the side windows as she felt her time running out. There was no plan B. Since meeting James, an hour late for a meeting and staring down at a flat tyre, the three months of planning had failed to reveal a kink such as this.
Her husband had moved his thighs toward her in an attempt at cramped intimacy. Did Roger know what was going on? Was he on to her affair? ‘What!’ As flippant as she could make it sound, why change the habit of a lifetime?
He had his hand up to his mouth, rubbing at his day’s worth of growth. ‘I’ve been wanting to talk to you about something for a while, now.’
Oh, God; it was coming. Whatever it was, she had to find a way of changing the subject. ‘Is that a van?’ There was nothing there when she pointed her finger, but when Roger wiped away a trail of mist they could see a glint of headlights in the distance.
‘Get out and flag him down,’ nudging her husband out of his little heart to heart and out the door.
She cleared the screen and text out a message to warn her new man not to say anything stupid. Outside, she caught a wisp of Roger crossing a verge and scrabbling over toward the main road as the pale headlights drew nearer. Phone in the air, she hit send and watched the message float in limbo; ‘Come on, come on.’
Roger was at the roadside, arms in the air waving down a van rounding the bend.
With a bleep, the message had failed. She hit send again as a tiny bar appeared in the upper corner of the screen.
Up ahead, the van began to slow at Roger’s frantic gesture to stop. Another mobile beep and the message had sent. But the van that had stopped alongside her husband was not a recovery vehicle.
It was not James.
Charlotte’s chest hiccupped. As her husband reached the cab, there was a flash followed by a dull clap. Roger dropped to the tarmac, smoke rising from the gun levelled at him.
Her scream caught her by surprise – hadn’t the plan been to kill him? Grappling with her phone, she dialled the emergency services only for the call to fail.
Up by the roadside, the gunman had exited the cab aiming for the sprawled man she had married. Would they notice the car and kill her too? She hunkered down low, so only her forehead was visible above the dashboard, watching as another round was fired into Roger.
A horn blared behind her, drawing the attention of the shooter. Charlotte turned in her seat at the illuminated roadside rescue truck.
It was James.
Back around to the main road, another man was standing next to the shooter now; both their heads turned facing her. Before she could do anything else, James was at her window in his reflective jacket squinting beneath the barrage of rain; with the weather outside, he was oblivious of the other two men.
A crack of gunfire changed all that.
Her passenger door was wrenched open and she was ripped out, in an instant being pulled up from the soggy grass verge and back around to the recovery vehicle. James threw her inside before she could tell him about Roger.
Another crack of gunfire and a chink of metal bounding off metal; from her vantage point inside the truck, she could see the two men heading toward them leaving Roger on the rain swept roadside.
Two more shots sounded before James was scrambling in next to her, shifting the truck into reverse and tearing away.
‘Roger!’ She could say his name but could not bring herself to put into words what they had done to her husband.
James handed her the radio and told her what to do. It fumbled out of her grip as they hit a dip in the narrow path.
A bullet zinged the grill. James rammed the truck into gear and aimed for them.
Charlotte wanted to cry out, edging down into cover. One of the men fired off a shot, both of them separating out as the truck roared on passed her broken down car and the body of her husband.
‘Where were you?!’ Rearing on her rescuer.
James twisted the wheel to ramp the verge and take the main road out of harms way.
Charlotte’s wrist blared. She checked it and found the stopwatch flashing on zero.
‘You told me to wait it out.’ He was watching the rear view for the red tail lights to swing around and follow them.
She did. She told him to wait for thirty minutes so the whole thing didn’t seem too orchestrated.
‘What about Roger?’
James laughed, ‘Thought you wanted him dead?’
Had he done this? Had James come up with a plan B?
‘Stop the car; I’m going back for Roger,’ inching the passenger door wider.
He had her arm and yanked her back inside. ‘This wasn’t me, Babe; I swear.’
She looked into his eyes and forced herself to believe him. Coincidences happened and wishes came true; Charlotte wanted her husband dead, and now he was, lying in the middle of the road riddled with bullets.
‘What now?’ She liked plans but hated surprises.
Eyes still in the mirror, he told her they were heading back to the depot to call
After a silence, he told her to buckle up. His head was twisted behind them at a set of headlights in the distance.
Charlotte did as she was told.
Facing front, in amongst the torrent of rain, a businessman stepped out into the recovery trucks main beam frantically waving his arms overhead. James reacted with a swerve across the carriageway and down an embankment, stopping just inches from a line of trees.
A breathless businessman in a rain-ruined suit asked Charlotte the same question. ‘Our car’s just died.’
Even though she didn’t want him to, James got out to help the man. ‘Stay put,’ leaving her behind to watch them climb the incline back up to the road.
What about Roger’s killers? They were both witnesses to a murder, what was stopping the killers continuing their shooting spree?
Wrenching open the passenger door and tottering down in her heels, Charlotte went after her man, climbing up over the sludge and tyre-carved embankment and skittering on to the carriageway. Through the shower, stationed on a make-shift hard shoulder opposite, the businessman led James over to a saloon that was not too dissimilar to her own broken down car.
Arms folded in the passenger seat beneath a stark interior bulb sat a woman with a mean look in her eyes. Slipping across the wet concourse toward the group Charlotte halted as the businessman looked up toward the approaching headlights.
Head in the engine block, her call to him went unheard.
And, in the narrow distance, that same van neared carrying her husband’s killers.
Heels clipping on the slick tarmac, she doggedly moved to warn her man, ‘It’s them!’
When James saw her, so did the killers; reaching out to grab hold of Charlotte’s hand James pulled her after him toward the maze of waiting trees.
‘Run!’ screaming back over his shoulder at the businessman and his passenger, urging the couple to follow them to safety.
Charlotte glanced back as they headed into the thicket, at the businessman and his passenger standing together on the roadside bathed in the main beam of the white van screeching to a stop; the killers guns raised but with too many targets to hit at once.
‘You’re late!’ The woman said to the gunman from the van. ‘I told you eight pm!’
As they ran for their lives, Charlotte thought again about coincidences and other people’s wishes that, too, came true. Listening out for that fatal shot to ring out and claim its intended target before they came again to finish what they should never have started.
Mark's previous writing has appeared on Thrillers, Killers n Chillers, Sunk Island Review, Microhorror.com, Hackwriters.com, Manchester’s Transmission Magazine, Birmingham’s Raw Edge Magazine, Short Story Library (US), Txtlit.co.uk, Post Card Shorts, Enigma and the Lulu Anthology, Never Hit by Lightning, Edited by Tucker Lieberman & Andrew Tivey.
Forthcoming publications include Powder Burn Flash, A Thousand-faces & Delivered.